A Meaningful Midsize Mulligan

2014 Chevrolet Malibu

First dates can be rough. We've all been there – forcing your way through some conversation, trying to find common ground, nibbling your way through a meal you'll no doubt end up paying for yourself. The person across the table may be perfectly nice, and means well, but you just aren't feeling it. The spark isn't there.

Our initial encounter with the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu was like that – an experience we'll look back on with a shrug and a "meh." And we aren't alone. After it launched, the 'Bu was met with lukewarm-at-best reviews, comparison test losses and, most importantly, meager sales. In fact, there was a point where Chevy was actually selling more of its discounted 2012 Malibus than the 2013 models that were piling up at dealer lots.

But rather than leave it alone, Chevy has quickly worked up a host of changes for its ever-important midsize sedan, and will be launching this "there, we fixed it" 2014 Malibu like it's an all-new product. The exterior has been tweaked, the interior refined, the powertrain massaged and the chassis retuned. The list of enhancements is rather significant, and caused us to reconsider the Malibu rather than just remembering that first bad date.

Everyone deserves a second chance, right?

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This new-and-improved formula starts up front with a refreshed fascia that better brings the Malibu in line with the most recent crop of updated Chevys. What was previously an unoffensive but not terribly inspired design has grown into something more sculpted and handsome, simply by adjusting the height and spacing of the grille. The hood now curves and falls over the tipping point of the nose, and the lower grille opening is larger and better defined. Other facial elements like the headlamps and foglamps have remained the same, but even this small nose job is enough to give the Malibu a more confident visage.

What was previously an unoffensive but not terribly inspired design has grown into something more sculpted and handsome.

As for the rest of the car's visuals, they haven't changed. From the profile, the overhangs still appear to be too large, and we just can't completely warm up to the rear design with those squared-off (please stop calling them "Camaro-inspired") taillamps. Still, it's not a bad-looking package, rounded out with carryover 18-inch alloy wheels from last year's 2.5-liter model wrapped in P235/50R18 Goodyear Eagle LS tires. Larger 19-inch wheels are available, and they do a nice job of filling out the wheel wells. But if you choose not to pony up for an uplevel model, you will be punished with puny-looking 17- or even 16-inch wheel designs.

Other 2014 model-year improvements lie behind those wheels, where Chevy has fitted the Malibu with upgraded chassis and suspension components pulled from its larger Impala sedan. Specifically, the 2.5-liter naturally aspirated model that we drove now uses better rebound springs and struts, allowing for more refined damper calibration. The result is an improved, smoother ride quality. Still, while Chevy will happily tell you that these upgrades limit body roll and contribute to "a more precise, controlled feel – especially while cornering," the truth is that, once again, this is one of the least-engaging vehicles in the class. It's not Camry disconnected, but from a driver's perspective, the Honda Accord, Ford Fusion, Mazda6 and Nissan Altima all offer more rewarding behind-the-wheel experiences. But for the vast majority of midsize buyers, the Malibu will be a fine choice. Its relaxed dynamics and incredibly quiet interior make for a car that you could easily pack the miles on, offering a comfortable ride and a vice-free experience that we can see a lot of people appreciating.

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Gone for 2014 is the 2.4-liter mild-hybrid eAssist model, and honestly, it won't be missed. The naturally aspirated 2.5-liter inline four-cylinder engine with 196 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque now serves as the base model, featuring a stop/start system and a reworked six-speed automatic transmission. Compared to the 2.4, the 2.5 offers gains of 14 hp and 14 lb-ft, while still returning the same fuel economy numbers.

The Malibu has one of the better stop/start systems we've tested.

Well, almost. GM quotes the 2014 Malibu at 25/36 miles per gallon city/highway, while the 2013 model achieved 25/37. That said, engineers we spoke to say that the car will "confidently" hit that 36-mpg mark, and while they could have eked out a 37-mpg rating, the company thought it better to just leave the number at 36. (This sounded a bit weak to us, too, but the logic of having a number that is realistic for customers to hit reliably – the story Chevy told us when pressed – does hold some water.) Beyond that, the removal of the eAssist battery system means there's more trunk space – cargo volume increases from 13.2 cubic feet to 16.3 – even with the addition of a second, smaller battery in the car's rump to help supplement the vehicle's operating systems when stop/start is activated. We're told that GM is still committed to offering eAssist on other models, though, and that a next-generation version of the system is in development for future products.

The new stop/start function is really slick here in the Malibu, and that's a good thing, since it can't be turned off like on some cars. In our day of driving, we never found it to be intrusive or jarring. Many folks are (understandably) having a tough time warming up to this sort of technology, but we don't see it being all that bothersome to Chevy customers. Frankly, it's one of the better stop/start systems we've tested, handily besting what's offered by BMW, for example.

2014 Chevrolet Malibu

Chevy expects 85 to 90 percent of all 2014 Malibu models to be sold with the 2.5-liter engine.

Chevy expects 85 to 90 percent of all 2014 Malibu models to be sold with the 2.5-liter engine, but there's also a 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-four available on higher-end models. This engine, identified internally by the codename LTG, is essentially the same as what's offered in the Buick Regal and Cadillac ATS, producing 259 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque here in the Malibu. That's no more horsepower than the 2013 Malibu Turbo, but torque output has increased by 35 lb-ft, enabling better low-end power for acceleration and highway passing. Chevy says the 2.0T-equipped Malibu can sprint to 60 miles per hour in 5.9 seconds, which is relatively quick for a car in this class, though fuel economy suffers – the turbo 'Bu will only achieve 21/30 mpg city/highway, compared to the 22/33 rating of the front-wheel-drive Ford Fusion with its 2.0-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder or even the 21/34 mpg of the Honda Accord with its 3.5-liter V6.

The 2.5-liter Malibu honestly seems like the right choice to us. The Turbo model is fine and offers decent grunt, but it's still not a great-driving car. Bouts of torque steer makes things occasionally squirrely, and the six-speed automatic transmission, despite its improved shift speed and smoothness, still doesn't feel up to the task of managing all that power. The base engine, on the other hand, is smooth as butter, with a revised Hydra-Matic 6T45 six-speed tranny that works well with the engine and more relaxed dynamics of this midsize sedan. It's not an efficiency-seeking buzzkill, either, eagerly holding gears into the higher rev range and executing downshifts when mandated by the driver's right foot. Speaking of which, throttle response and linearity has been improved for 2014. We found the accelerator decidedly well-tuned in this application. There's no feeling of deadness when you first dive into the throttle, but no jarring rush of thrust right at tip-in, either.

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The Malibu's electric power-assisted steering has also been reworked for 2014, tuned with a very welcome higher-effort calibration – again, something taken from the Impala. The end result is a rack that, while not as direct or engaging as the Mazda6, Accord or Fusion, is far better than the overboosted vagueness found in the Toyota Camry. Stopping prowess is also better, with improved brake feel compared to last year's model.

It's sort of a hodgepodge of premium and cheap materials, but nothing that stands out as sub-par for the class.

Stepping inside, the Chevy's interior offers a host of improvements over the outgoing model, with redesigned front seats that not only provide better comfort for the driver and passenger but allow for increased knee room in the rear. We sat in the back seat for a bit, and while the added space is noticeable, we'd still like a bit more in the way of toe room so our little piggies don't feel quite so cramped. Headroom is good, though, and the lower, deeper seating position of the rear bench allows for a generally more comfortable experience.

Up front, the center console has been reworked with a shift lever that's positioned closer to the driver, allowing for better cup- and phone-holder placement, as well as a revised armrest/storage cubby setup. Everything else up front is largely the same. The dashboard and door materials generally feel nice and premium-ish, but there are still some rough, hard plastics on the center stack and other not-as-frequently touched areas. It's sort of a hodgepodge of premium and cheap materials, but nothing that stands out as sub-par for the class.

2014 Chevrolet Malibu

On the tech front, Chevy is still offering its MyLink infotainment system with a touchscreen interface that's simple to use, with a simple setup and easy-to-locate functions. New for 2014 is the addition of a voice texting feature and the ability for iPhone users to summon Siri through the voice control system. In our quick demonstration, everything seemed to work relatively well. Users can reply to texts on the go with a number of pre-set messages. You can even create your own responses to choose from, because, you know, "OMG, I'm driving WTF! Gotta go, LOL" might better fit the owner's personality than simply, "I'm in the car, I'll call you later." You know who you are.

The Malibu pulls off the whole Camry formula better than Toyota itself can right now.

The 2014 Malibu is working its way to Chevy dealers as you read this, and the price of entry is $22,140, not including $825 for destination. That's an increase of less than $150 compared to the 2013 model, but represents a decrease of nearly $1,000 versus the outgoing eAssist model – a real win, in our eyes. A fully decked-out Malibu Turbo will run you just under $36,000 on the high end, and a very nicely equipped 2.5L 1LZ model like the one you see here comes in at $33,450. Those numbers are all very competitive, though comparing fully loaded models, you'll be paying more for the Chevy than a comparably equipped Accord or Mazda6.

All in, the 2014 model year enhancements make for a robust, much improved package. We might not pick it over many of its midsize classmates, but as an appliance, the Malibu pulls off the whole Camry formula better than Toyota itself can right now. It might not be the car we'd commit to, but we'd gladly meet it for coffee again sometime.